Airplane Security and Metal Knives
This essay also appeared in The Age.
Two weeks ago, Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone caused a stir by ridiculing airplane security in a public speech. She derided much of post-9/11 airline security, especially the use of plastic knives instead of metal ones, and said "a lot of what we do is to make people feel better as opposed to actually achieve an outcome."
As a foreigner, I know very little about Australian politics. I don't know anything about Senator Vanstone, her politics, her policies, or her party. I have no idea what she stands for. But as a security technologist, I agree 100% with her comments. Most airplane security is what I call "security theater": ineffective measures designed to make people feel better about flying.
I get irritated every time I get a plastic knife with my airplane meal. I know it doesn't make me any safer to get plastic. El Al, a company I know takes security seriously, serves in-flight meals with metal cutlery...even in economy class.
Senator Vanstone pointed to wine glasses and HB pencils as potential weapons. She could have gone further. Spend a few minutes on the problem, and you quickly realise that airplanes are awash in potential weapons: belts, dental floss, keys, neckties, hatpins, canes, or the bare hands of someone with the proper training. Snap the extension handle of a wheeled suitcase off in just the right way, and you've got a pretty effective spear. Garrotes can be made of fishing line or dental floss. Shatter a CD or DVD and you'll have a bunch of razor-sharp fragments. Break a bottle and you've got a nasty weapon. Even the most unimaginative terrorist could figure out how to smuggle an 8-inch resin combat knife onto a plane. In my book Beyond Fear, I even explained how to make a knife onboard with a tube of steel epoxy glue.
Maybe people who have watched MacGyver should never be allowed to fly.
The point is not that we can't make air travel safe; the point is that we're missing the point. Yes, the 9/11 terrorists used box cutters and small knives to hijack four airplanes, their attack wasn't about the weapons. The terrorists succeeded because they exploited a flaw in the US response policy. Prior to 9/11, standard procedure was to cooperate fully with the terrorists while the plane was in the air. The goal was to get the plane onto the ground, where you can more easily negotiate. That policy, of course, fails completely when faced with a suicide terrorists.
And more importantly, the attack was a one-time event. We haven't seen the end of airplane hijacking—there was a conventional midair hijacking in Colombia in September—but the aircraft-as-missile tactic required surprise to be successful.
This is not to say that we should give up on airplane security, either. A single cursory screening is worth it, but more extensive screening rapidly reaches the point of diminishing returns. Most criminals are stupid, and are caught by a basic screening system. And just as important, the very act of screening is both a reminder and a deterrent. Terrorists can't guarantee that they will be able to slip a weapon through screening, so they probably won't try.
But screening will never be perfect. We can't keep weapons out of prisons, a much more restrictive and controlled environment. How can we have a hope of keeping them off airplanes? The way to prevent airplane terrorism is not to spend additional resources keeping objects that could fall into the wrong hands off airplanes. The way to improve airplane security is to spend those resources keeping the wrong hands from boarding airplanes in the first place, and to make those hands ineffective if they do.
Exactly two things have made airline travel safer since 9/11: reinforcing the cockpit door, and passengers who now know that they may have to fight back. Everything else—all that extra screening, those massive passenger profiling systems—is security theatre.
If, as Opposition leader Kim Beazley said, Senator Vanstone should be sacked for speaking the truth, then we're all much less secure. And if, as Federal Labor's homeland security spokesman Arch Bevis said, her comments made a mockery of the Howard government's credibility in the area of counter-terrorism, then maybe Howard's government doesn't have any credibility.
We would all be a lot safer if we took all the money we're spending on enhanced passenger screening and applied it to intelligence, investigation, and emergency response. This is how to keep the wrong hands off airplanes and, more importantly, how to make us secure regardless of what the terrorists are planning next—even if it has nothing to do with airplanes.
Categories: Airline Travel